Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing

VAERA 5774

VAERA 5774


The secular New Year begins this Wednesday. Are you ready for 2014? By all accounts, it should be an interesting year. As the New Year approaches, each December lots of people make lots of lists. They make lists of their New Year’s “resolutions,” but few ever follow through on them. Last year I wanted to lose 10 pounds. But I’m afraid I’ve still got them and perhaps a couple more!

I found on the Internet a list of 7 New Year’s resolutions you can actually keep:

  1. 1.Read less.
  2. 2.I want to gain weight. Put on at least 30 pounds.
  3. 3.Stop exercising. Waste of time.
  4. 4.Watch more TV. I’ve been missing some good stuff.
  5. 5.Procrastinate more.
  6. 6.I will no longer waste my time reliving the past, instead I’ll spend it worrying about the future.
  7. 7.My favorite: I will do less laundry and use more deodorant.

Lots of people make lists of predictions for the New Year, but it never fails that there are so many unforeseen surprises each year—like extreme weather as seen just a little over a year ago with hurricane Sandy, or the direction of the economic markets as seen in the crash of 2008 or political shocks like the fall of the democratically elected government of Egypt this year.

Predicting is a funny business. We get all excited about the possibilities that the predictions may come to pass, but truth be told, most predictions seem to end up failing, and by that time we’ve forgotten it was ever predicted. Here are some classical examples of failed predictions:

          “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us,” Western Union internal memo, 1876.

          “The wireless music box (radio) has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” David Sarnoff in response to urging him to investment in radio in the 1920s.

          “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.” Dr. Lee DeForest, “Father of Radio & Grandfather of Television.”

          “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923

          “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” Popular Mechanics, 1949.

          “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

          “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Bill Gates, 1981. My cell phone has more than 20 times that capacity.

          “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

          And last but not least: “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out,” Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

What predictions would you make for the New Year? What do you predict for yourself and for your family? Not me. I’m not one for predictions. But there is one thing I can tell you for certain about this coming New Year—it will be full of surprises!

A colleague and dear friend ::of mine, Rabbi Ira Grussgott, once wrote a cute piece about New Year predictions in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. In it he points out a very deep truth:

          There is another…disturbing factor about our fondness for forecasting. It evidences not only a suspension of rationality but, more loathsome, a forfeiture of responsibility.

          Our religion is predicated upon faith, not fate. And while tradition acknowledged the latter to a degree, it emphasizes the former. Emphasize fate and you are unwilling to tempt it by taking risks. Emphasize fate and you are terrified of the prospect of assuming responsibility for your actions.

          An emphasis on faith, however, embraces the obligation since it presumes an ability to meet the future, with all its uncertainties, and to shape its agenda to create one’s own destiny.

          The man ruled by fate says the future is all in Gd’s hands. The man of faith says the future is not only in Gd’s hands, but in the hands of mortal man, as well. And if free will is what renders the future all the more uncertain, then the man of faith says that’s a price worth paying.

The future is uncertain because no one ever knows for sure what we will do—not even Gd! Gd has restricted Himself in that regard by granting us free will. The late Carl Sagan in explaining the difference between an astronomer and an astrologer once said: “An astronomer can predict precisely where every star will be at 11:30 on any given night, but cannot say the same for his teenage daughter. For that, you need an astrologer!”

Even Gd doesn’t know for sure the future. Yes, Gd knows our future, or more accurately, our futures. He knows what will happen depending upon which path we take or choices we make. And yes, Gd has a plan for the future that will come to pass one way or the other, but whether we choose to be part of that plan is up to us.

We see this clearly in the Torah. In last week’s parsha Gd tells Moses at the burning bush that the leaders of the Jewish people will believe that Gd sent him to get                                                           Pharaoh to let their people go and—and this is the important part—that they will go with him to Pharaoh (Ex. 3:18). Yet later the Torah (5:1) informs us: “Afterwards, Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh…‘Thus said the Lrd Gd of Israel, Let My people go.’” Did you catch that? “Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh.” Gd had told Moses that the Jewish leaders would go with him and Aaron, but they didn’t! They couldn’t bring themselves to do it.

On the other hand, when it’s vital to Gd’s plan sometimes Gd diminishes our free will. For example, it was crucial to Gd’s plan for there to be 10 plagues upon Egypt, therefore, Gd hardened Pharaoh’s heart when it seemed that it might soften. But otherwise, the future—even to Gd—is uncertain.

In the Talmud (Baba Batra 12b) Rabbi Yochanan said: “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.” That’s the problem with predictions. To think you have it all figured out is to be a fool. To forfeit responsibility is to be childish.

Yes there were great rabbis that tried to predict the future. Many of them wound up with egg on their faces like the rabbi of Sighet, Romania, who told my ex-father-in-law’s father not to leave Europe in the late 1930’s. He had a brother in Argentina who begged him to come. But he listened to his rabbi and stayed. Most of the family later perished in Hitler’s ovens! But there were great Kabbalists, like the Vilna Gaon who predicted in the 1700’s, based upon verses in the Torah and Kabbalistic principles that the Jewish people would return to their land in 1948!

But for the rest of us, rather than reading tea leaves, we’d do better reading a blat Gemora, a leaf of Talmud. If more of us do that and increase our knowledge of Torah, then I predict—at the risk of sounding like a foolish child—a rosier future for all the Jewish people.

Psalm 87 (6) teaches: “Gd counts with the reckoning of the nations.” In other words, wishing you a happy New Year is in keeping with Jewish tradition. So I wish all of you a healthy and happy New Year. Amen!

                                                          Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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